Oscar campaigning gets downsized

Public events hyping contenders replaced by intimate parties

Forget lavish junkets and expensive gifts. Whatever the Academy hasn't managed to do to rein in what the Governors deemed over-the-top campaigning, the recession and downsizing have seen to: It's no longer cool to throw a splashy, public event to hype an Oscar contender.

Now, there are more specialized gatherings for more select groups -- intimate parties at a restaurant or the home of a producer, studio chief or star. The sell is subtle. Elegantly catered, often with entertainment, these soirees celebrate the director or the stars, and many double as holiday functions.

Leonardo DiCaprio hosted a party for pal Tobey Maguire, underwritten by film financier Relativity Media, just before Maguire snagged a surprise best actor Golden Globe nomination for "Brothers." Fox co-chairman Jim Gianopulos threw a 60th birthday party for "Crazy Heart" star Jeff Bridges, who soon after became a Globe, SAG and Broadcast Critics nominee.

In New York, Gloria Steinem hosted a ladies-only party for "Bright Star" director Jane Campion. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson hosted a screening of Oscilloscope's "The Messenger," starring Woody Harrelson, for fellow actors including Sean Penn, who later hosted a screening in San Francisco.

Sometimes events target specific subgroups like guild members, many of whom also are Oscar voters. SAG's nominating committee this year got early looks at films ranging from "Invictus" to "The Lovely Bones," followed by Q&As with the actors involved.

Some events showcase the crafts, especially music. Peter Bogdanovich and Callie Khouri hosted a screening of "Crazy Heart," then Willie Nelson performed music from the pic.

Other times it's a tribute at a film festival, where the timing is right and where potential voters just happen to live. Santa Barbara and Palm Springs in recent years have seen propitious visits from Penn ("Milk") and Daniel Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood"). This year's Palm Springs tribute lineup includes potential Oscar nominees Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and Jason Reitman.

Over the years, invitational events have been hosted by Universal's Ron Meyer, Warner Bros.' Alan Horn, Sony's Amy Pascal and others. But the master of the game is Harvey Weinstein, whose company with brother Bob already has had some success this awards season, scoring with the Globes, SAG and Broadcast Critics. The Weinstein Co. has a dozen Globe noms, more than any other studio.

How have the Weinsteins done it?

"We are absolutely being more targeted," Weinstein Co. international distribution president David Glasser said. "It's kind of nice because we are being more personal at the events. We're just not doing blanket spending."

Glasser, though, noted that the effort can involve significant logistical challenges. "You can imagine what it's like to move everybody from Brad Pitt to Nicole Kidman to Daniel Day-Lewis to Colin Firth to Viggo Mortensen around," he said.

Although Hollywood has thrown parties at awards time since the Roaring '20s, the modern era arguably began in 2000 with DreamWorks/Universal's "Gladiator." It was released in May, and publicist Bruce Feldman recalled that DreamWorks did a "road show" rerelease in a large Century City theater followed by Q&As with the director, writer, cinematographer, costumer and others -- an approach that has been copied frequently. The film went on to earn a dozen noms and five Oscars, including best picture.

Invitation-only events -- like the recent party thrown at the home of Lawrence Bender, a producer of "Inglourious Basterds" -- legally skirt Academy rules that prohibit inviting only Oscar voters by including guild members and some media, especially Globes voters in the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.

Making it even more an arm's-length affair, that party wasn't thrown by the Weinsteins but by director Quentin Tarantino and Bender. The pair were on hand with Pitt and the "Inglourious" cast, most notably Christoph Waltz, the Austrian who has received several supporting actor noms this season.

"You should have seen that party -- from Ron Howard, and of course Quentin, there were 200-some people you were amazed at seeing there," said Barbara Boyle, dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and a veteran film producer and Academy member.

She has seen a real change in the past five years alone.

"Somehow or other it just does seem more personal," Boyle said. "It's like they are inviting us in and then saying to us: 'This is my baby. Come and see how beautiful she is.' "
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